As we come down off the past few days of eating ourselves into food comas, vaguely slurring ‘yeah gimme another slice of cake’ while unbuckling the belt buckle, I thought I’d pop up with a little more science for y’all!
I wrote in a previous post about gut bacteria – one of my scientific obsessions. They’re out own internal zoo, and we’re all existing and eating in harmony with the desires of these little microbial hitchhikers.
But could they be part of this obesity epidemic that’s rapidly expanding worldwide?
A study published in Nature earlier this year suggests that the things we eat could actually alter our extensive collection of gut microbiota and make us more susceptible to obesity, metabolic syndrome, and a bunch of intestinal disorders.
When the zoo is upset, the zookeepers get upset too!
In this article, the authors wrote that pretty low concentrations of two commonly used emulsifiers (called carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80) could cause low-grade inflammation, metabolic syndrome, and obesity in mice. To top it off, they promoted the development of colitis (which is just a fancy way to say inflammation of the colon) in predisposed mice. This emulsifier-induced metabolic syndrome was also linked with the enhanced movement of bacteria across the gut epithelia, and altered microbiome profile with a push towards more pro-inflammatory microbes.
That’s a pretty concerning link between veeeeery common food additives and increasingly-common problems seen in humans.
But remember, correlation doesn’t imply causation. Just cos those two things go together, it isn’t proof that one causes the other. So just chillax for now.
Firstly, we need to understand what emulsifiers actually are.
Emulsifiers are detergent-like molecules that are a common component of many foods – they’re used to make ubiquitous, creamy, and downright delicious combinations out of substances that normally don’t want to play nice together. You can find them in bread, ice-cream, margarine… oh, and definitely in anything with a creamy whipped centre. They’re in tons of things many of us eat every day.
And maybe they’re doing us harm.
Regulatory bodies such as the FDA (Food and Drug Administration, USA) regard these additives as ‘generally safe’ because they have passed strict tests that indicate they do not cause cancer or toxic effects in mammals.
But, there’s simply no way these tests can ever be that comprehensive. Through the work done by Chassaing and colleagues, we get a fascinating indication into some of the unexpected side effects of these food additives that have slipped through the cracks of standard food testing.
But remember, this is a study focussing on some very specific conditions in laboratory mice. These are inbred mice, in a shiny perfectly-controlled lab environment, eating very specific things and only those things, not anything like the complex lives we enjoy.
So let’s reign in the knee-jerk reactions, people, and keep our science brains connected. No ranting about ‘clean’ eating, because that’s not scientifically sound. No ranting about the evilness of gelato and how it should be banned forever, because that hurts my soul.
This study isn’t enough information to take emulsifiers off the market. More investigation is happening as we speak. Eventually we will tease apart the details of any possible link between a diet high in emulsifiers, and the development of metabolic or digestive disorders. But real science is meticulous, and takes time. So we need to wait for now and let the experts do their thing.
Could emulsifiers be one of the reasons for the rising tide of obesity and its related complications? Perhaps. Will they kill you? No. If you want to avoid them just in case, that’s absolutely your decision.
For now, I’m gonna keep enjoying my perfectly whipped gelato, as part of a healthy balanced diet. A treat like that every now and then makes life worth living.